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February 22, 2004

Brief political interlude

I stay away from electoral politics for the most part in this blog, for two reasons: 1) the subject would rapidly consume the entire blog, and Idawanna, and 2) this site is legally constrained as a 501(c)3 from engaging in electoral politics. So let me say at the outset that this post does not constitute an endorsement by myself, or by Faultline, of any candidate for any office.

But there's something on my mind the last few days, what with the clamor over whether Ralph Nader will, or should, run for President this year. I sent something out to a few friends in email, and decided I needed to modify it slightly and post it here. I promise I won't make a habit of it.

I voted for Nader in 2000.

I did so because I live in a state that was sure to give its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate — who was that again? His name seems to have slipped my mind — and because I liked the Green Party and thought matching funds for their candidates would be a good thing. Both those reasons are irrelevant now, and there's a looming and painfully obvious reason why my vote will be different this time around.

And I say that out of defensiveness, because admitting you voted for Nader in 2000 is, to some people, very much like saying you gave Hitler a ride to the Reichstag. If not for Nader, Gore would have had several dozen more votes in Florida, the story goes, and we wouldn't be in Iraq right now, and the environment wouldn't be under unprecedented attack, and no one would know who Valerie Plame was, etc.

Never mind the fact that about ten percent of Florida Democrats voted for Bush. Never mind the fact that Gore ran such an incredibly tepid campaign that his victory hinged on a handful of votes in a swing state, and if he'd won, oh I dunno, his freaking home state of Tennessee, Nader would have been a footnote, as would Bush. Never mind the crony disenfranchisement of Florida Democrats by Bush's brother, or the little matter of Rehnquist and Scalia. It's Ralph's fault.

I should say that Ralph Nader saved my life by pushing for seat belts in the 1960s. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Still, I am given to understand that he is a less than stellar human being: autocratic, difficult to work with, willing to capitalize on others' hard work without sharing credit. He's not above using dirty tricks to fund his work: during the 1970s, his Public Interest Research Groups ran special elections to fund themselves at college campuses, counting on low turnout to force students to support the PIRG chapters whether they agreed with the PIRG's goals or not. He's also a singularly uninspiring campaigner, and his political astuteness and self-awareness seem like unto those of Lyndon LaRouche.

But blaming Ralph Nader for 2000 is about as useful as letting dry rot run rampant in a building for a few decades, against the advice of a number of home inspectors, and then blaming the 2.7 temblor that actually knocks it down for "ruining your house." Sure, a couple hundred Nader votes were the final straw on Camel Gore. But it's not very useful to single out that one straw and ignore the eight bales already tied to the saddle.

Here's a parable.

There's a presidential election. One of the candidates is named Bush. A third-party candidate starts to gain traction over the course of the campaign, using the message that there is only minor and negligible difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. After the election, it is widely agreed that the third party candidacy changed the course of history by draining votes from the incumbent major party, to which the third party was far more closely comparable. A president is elected without winning a majority of the popular vote, by a margin far smaller than the spoiler's vote totals, and that new president immediately sets to an agenda that is anathema to the losing party's stalwart loyalists.

In this case, however, GOP activists spent no time at all whining that Ross Perot and the Reform Party had sabotaged the 1992 election. Instead, they set to win over the core of the Reform constituency. Two years later, the GOP reclaimed the legislative agenda through the 104th Congress, and they've been ascendant ever since.

The Democrats want to neutralize the threat from Nader? Fine, and I wish them luck. But do it by making Nader irrelevant and coopting his power base, not by complaining about him exercising his right to run as a candidate, or whining about a couple hundred voters not voting the way the Dems wanted them to. No one owns anyone's vote by right: votes must be earned. Democratic Party activists play the scapegoat card at their peril and ours. If they'd just collectively grow a set of cojones, Nader would fade away.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 22, 2004 01:33 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/122

1 blog(s) linking to this post:

Nader stuff
Excerpt: I had a long Ralph Nader-related post in me... but environmental journalist Chris Clarke has made every point I wanted to, and more eloquently. Read his post.
Weblog: The Bone
Tracked: February 23, 2004 06:49 PM
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Comments

Your last paragraph says it all. And I can't say that I'm terribly optimistic that the Democrats will get it.

Posted by: beth at February 22, 2004 03:42 PM
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The credible complaint is for those who gave Nader their vote and later have the gall to whine about who was elected. It's perfectly clear that in a 2 party, first-past-the-post system, any vote for a 3rd party candidate is a vote for whoever ends up winning. As long as you know WHO you're voting for when you cast the ballot, it's fair. Nader voters whining about George Bush are about as credible as Bush voters whining about George Bush.

Posted by: tonio at February 22, 2004 04:50 PM
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That's an excellent example of the attitude I'm talking about, Tonio.

People in the US have the right to vote for whoever they want, and they have the right to complain about elected officials, and the second right is not contingent on who they exercised the first in favor of. In fact, it's disgruntled Bush voters that give me the most hope for 2004.

Here's a little bit of math: A=A. If you write off everyone who didn't vote for Gore in 2000 as not worthy of working with you, you lose again.

Are you interested in building an electoral coalition to beat Bush, or are you just gonna play neener neener?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 22, 2004 05:30 PM
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I wandered over here from the Nader thread on Eschaton. I've been in Nader/Dem debates with friends for a couple of days now, and this post makes all of the same points I've tried to make... but much more eloquently. Thanks for posting this... the 1992 analogy is particularly brilliant.

Posted by: The Bone at February 23, 2004 07:01 AM
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Thanks from another Nader voter (in 2000, but probably not this time). You said it too well for me to add anything much. Here in Western PA we are of course very conscious of how much the Heinz foundation does for conservation causes, so a vote for Kerry won't seem like a total waste if it means we get Teresa for first lady. (Maybe, like Hilary, she will develop political ambitions of her own in a few years.)

Posted by: Dave at February 23, 2004 12:57 PM
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Nicely said, Chris. Especially the part about voting Green rather than voting Nader (which was my reasoning too, but it seems to get little air time). I am grateful he's running as an independent this time around; I'll not be divided between my support of Green principles and my desire to see Bush OUT of the White House.

Posted by: Rana at February 23, 2004 04:43 PM
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I voted for Nader in 2000 as well... much to the disgust of many of my friends and colleagues. (The colleagues who didn't vote for Bush and Schwarzenegger.) I agree with you that Gore lost that election all by himself: he had it sewn up, then tossed it to the wind.

I still have no idea who should get my vote in the primary next week! Thanks for prompting some thought about this.

Posted by: Pica at February 24, 2004 07:15 AM
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I didn't vote for Nader because I'm in a swing state, but I'm always glad when he runs. Somebody's got to stand up and say this stuff.

I also wouldn't vote for him if I thought he would win -- I think he'd make a terrible president -- NO skills at cajoling, compromising, or wheedling. But he makes a great protest candidate.

Posted by: dale at February 24, 2004 09:36 AM
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